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Movie Review: The Liberator

TheLiberatorPosterThe Liberator‘s tag line asks the audience: What kind of man would defy an empire? The answer, with charismatic Édgar Ramírez (Carlos, Zero Dark Thirty) as South American hero Simón Bolívar, is elusive yet intriguing. Bolívar fought Spain over and over in South America and it’s true that, in military campaigns that covered twice the territory of Alexander the Great, his army never conquered; it liberated. But this epic foreign war movie (in Spanish with English subtitles, opening in selected theaters on Friday) covers too much ground to dramatize the essence of this extraordinary man.

The subject is no less worthy of understanding. Bolívar’s family came from Spain’s Basque and Canary Islands regions, he was an aristocrat born in Caracas, Venezuela to a family fortune on vast property powered by slave labor, yet he was both raised by a black woman who loved him and he was intellectually liberated by a maestro who taught Bolívar radical, freethinking ideals. Cast out by the Spanish state and sent into the country with nothing, he nevertheless triumphed, connecting with natives, remaking himself and, stitching mutual interests into a cause based on French and American revolutionary ideas, instilling South American peoples with fervor for independence. Bolívar’s has the potential to be an amazing story and, in The Liberator, directed by Alberto Arvelo with a screenplay by Timothy J. Sexton, it is only partially depicted and often too quickly, too densely or aimlessly and with practically no exposition. Even the most studied Bolívar scholars may be bewildered by this sprawling motion picture.

That what is on screen – a widower who was passionate about “the rights of the individual” – has been largely untold is surprising. Hollywood should be all over this type of riches to rags story, though Bolívar, who is claimed by dictators such as Venezuela’s Chavez, admired Jefferson, eventually opposed slavery and does not fit the archetype of the leftist Latin American usually favored by studio executives. At least The Liberator, which uses too many characters to try too hard to do too much, makes the audience want to know more about this larger than life hero. There are good lines, such as when his mentor admonishes Bolívar during a low point in Paris, telling his once-promising student turned playboy: “You used to be rich [and] now all you have is money.”

There are also good scenes, such as when Irish troops consider whether to join the cause and on the cusp of a climactic river battle in which Bolívar persuades army troops by using reason and self-interest to face superior Spanish troops. The movie spreads itself too thin and it feels like Arvelo left a lot of scenes out, leaving gaps that render Ramírez’s performance disjointed when the whole picture needs to come into view. To its definite credit, The Liberator attempts to tell a story that ought to be told.

The picture also features Maria Valverde as Maria Teresa del Toro, Danny Huston as Martin Torkington, Imanol Arias as Monteverde, Gary Lewis as Colonel Rooke, Erich Wildpret as Antonio José de Sucre, Iwan Rheon as Lt. Daniel O’Leary and Andres Gertrudix as Prince Ferdinand.

Movie Review: Life’s a Breeze

Lifes_a_Breeze_1(1)A small, independent Irish movie about earning one’s rewards in life opens this weekend.

Life’s a Breeze is the story of a family searching for what the matriarch (Finnoula Flanagan) insists is a lost fortune stuffed inside an old mattress. The adult kids and their kids go searching through the garbage dumps, back alleys and streets of Dublin looking for the old woman’s mattress after they toss it out in an attempt to give her a surprise home makeover. What happens – as sibling rivalry, mother’s approval, money, aging and the prosspect of dying come into play – feeds the film’s theme, a twist on the Spanish proverb about taking what you want and paying for it. This is an unusual and poignant slice of life in Ireland.

It could happen anywhere and, though the poverty of Ireland’s welfare state permeates the movie’s downtrodden characters, who are all dependent upon the government in some way, Life’s a Breeze expresses a universal idea about family. The mother sees her children, most of whom are cruel, callous and hard to like (this is what being on the dole reduces men to), for who they are as the hunt for the money-filled mattress goes on. She also sees herself, the best and the worst, for who she is. The kids and theirs are in and out of her home, as the press gets wind of the missing mattress and all of Dublin wants to cash in on the unearned, and mother begins to accept that the parasites live through the host she chose to become.

This realization is not taken lightly and Irish life is bleak, gray and depressing as seen here, with pockets of black family humor as the proverbial pot of gold glimmers from the end of a government recycling center. But it is not dim at the core. As the mother watches her struggling kids come and go, and feels herself growing older with all that this implies, she becomes aware that her own limitations, reservations and choices can be seeded to profit the youth who is her grandchild: a quiet, intelligent girl named Emma (Kelly Thornton). This willful child is the soul of the story. She sees her family, its poverty – its fundamental impoverishment and renunciation of the prospect of self-enrichment – and the enveloping darkness and she chooses to watch, observe and think about the fountainhead of the unseen wealth instead. The relationship between old and young here is preciously well developed, from the hat the grandmother makes for the girl to the fact that the girl chooses to wear it to spare her grandmother’s feelings and everything this bond means.

They choose to love based on shared values, not blood, and they learn that loving one another is not easy. The girl goes hungry and a scene of Emma eating a slice of bread is one of the most powerful cinematic moments (and too many in today’s entitlement states may be able to relate to it). Emma stands up to Nan, as the deteriorating grandmother is known, too, and is hurt by the old battleaxe. Yet the child represents the true spirit of endurance, enterprise and authentic enrichment and it’s her relationship to reality – not the grating and irritating if dimensional adults – one should watch to feel the freshness of Life’s a Breeze, which is best experienced with granny and the grandkids.

Of course, these days life is not breezy at all. This is what drives the movie’s theme that effort and, above all, the willingness to be bold and radical in thought and action, pulls you through. It comes slowly, thoughtfully, in a scene with Emma cashing in on what she’s earned while looking over a city on the verge of ruin – and choosing to never let her newly discovered treasure go.

Blurred Lines

220px-Brian_Banks_(American_football)_2013According to an article in the National Journal, the U.S. government is starting a new program, called It’s On Us, to “try to shift the burden of combating rape culture from women to men.” It’s predicated on male college students taking some sort of supposed collective responsibility for women on campus.

The article says that, in addition to the new program, the Justice Department will award $6 million in grants to 18 colleges “to develop comprehensive campus sexual-assault prevention and response programs.”

This program, besides being a potential breeding ground for rapists, is based on a false dichotomy that rape is caused by either women or men. Rape, a horrible crime which is better understood now as an act of force, not sex, is complicated as a crime by the fact that it’s hard to prove. Also, false accusations, as in the Duke la crosse, Brian Banks, Gary Dotson and Tawana Brawley cases and scads of other cases, have the potential to destroy innocent people’s lives.

Women’s advocates make the point that telling women Don’t get raped ought not to preclude telling men Don’t rape, but they should remember that women rape men, too, and that rape is, in fact, not a culture, it’s a crime. To the extent that rape is condoned or sanctioned in popular culture, and I think it is, especially in hip hop and rap subcultures (leaving aside rape in African, Asian, Arab and Islamic cultures), people concerned about rape should scrutinize themselves. They should consider whether feminism and multiculturalism – both egalitarian-based ideas that sexes and cultures are equal in every sense, which is not true – contribute to glorification of rape.

I’m not a sexual abuse expert but it strikes me as a cultural observer that using the term “rapey” (“it’s a bit ‘rapey'”), for example, minimizes rape as a crime. Politicized arguments against rape on the grounds of violating once-controversial government dictates, such as President Nixon‘s Title 9, tend to cloud the topic and confuse otherwise intelligent people, leading them to tune out rape’s warning signs, signals and predispositions. Also, regarding male rapists, people should ask: who raises the boys who become the men who rape?

So when the topic is rape, there are blurred lines – consider Brian Banks, pictured here, the southern Californian who served time in prison for a rape he did not commit – with real, devastating consequences for victim and falsely accused and the blurring comes from the government (inside, mixed in and wannabes) who push an anti-male agenda masking what amounts to a crusade against Western civilization.

Rape is a horrific crime that should be dealt with severe punishment within the judicial system, not propagandized by the government by turning men – or women – into campus vigilantes harassing everyone with heavy-handed, government-subsidized messages imposing unearned guilt upon the innocent.

Book Review: Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide

Maltin2015MovieGuidefinalThis is the last edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which is available tomorrow in both mass market and trade paperback (click on the book jacket image to buy it on Amazon).

The reference book is an excellent resource. Each motion picture is entered alphabetically in boldface, in fine print, with parenthetical year of release, an indication if the movie’s in color, running time, director and cast and whether it’s on DVD or other home entertainment formats. The Movie Guide, which film scholar Maltin tells me is compiled and cross referenced by a staff of 20 or more, also includes trade association ratings and awards information (which don’t mean much to me). A plot and key character synopsis is bundled with a few words of opinion, accompanied by a star evaluation, about the picture. The final edition of Maltin’s Movie Guide includes an author’s introduction and guide to symbols.

Leonard Maltin (read my 2011 interview here and last week’s interview here) is an extremely knowledgeable source for movies, especially Disney movies, and Hollywood history. At age 63, he still writes books and posts for his Web site, teaches at University of Southern California’s film school and does regular media appearances. His work is fact-based and detail-oriented. The best part of his Movie Guide is its ability to identify and address popular and essential aspects of a movie and its legacy. Occasionally, though not often, an insight comes through which has not previously been named elsewhere by other writers. Maltin primarily deals here as a reporter of facts, whatever one thinks of his conclusions about movies, and his attention to what’s essential about a movie and accuracy is impeccable, especially when compared to today’s sloppy online copy-editing and pathetic lack of proofreading. As a movie journalist, I never rely on movie Web sites alone (if at all) for information. Maltin’s Movie Guide is best for crucial research and cross referencing.

The final 2015 edition is no exception. Though reviews tend to be conformist and he generally likes what most critics like, and scorns what most critics scorn, his analysis is always thoughtful and comprehensive. This handy volume is essential for anyone who cares about movies – watching, enjoying and studying them – and takes them seriously. Too many regard movies as a cavalier, unserious indulgence or, alternately, as inscrutable works of art. Leonard Maltin, whose best work I hope is yet to come, understands that movies have the potential to be powerful and are meant for general audiences all over the world. His Movie Guide, with over 15,000 entries (13,000 on DVD), is the movie industry’s most definitive yet accessible expression of this wonderful truth about movies.

Leonard Maltin on Movies (2014)

Maltin2015MovieGuidefinalLeonard Maltin, whom I interviewed here in 2011, recently announced that his annual paperback volume Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which has been produced in some form for 45 years, will cease publication. He explains in the new introduction to the final edition, on sale next week, that today’s market precludes a profitable production.

I interviewed Leonard Maltin almost three years ago to the day and, though I am saddened to lose the rich and treasured Movie Guide, I look forward to reading this one, last edition, the new, forthcoming edition of his Classic Movie Guide, his Web site, and whatever he creates in the future. I know I’ll see Leonard Maltin soon at the movies. Until then, I am glad to know that one of the world’s most serious and knowledgeable film scholars is here in Hollywood where he belongs.

This is an edited transcript. To purchase the book, click on the cover image.

Scott Holleran: Would the story of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide make a good movie?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so. The real story of the guide—of how I came to be hired at 17—would make an amusing sequence but not a movie. The story of actually producing the guide day to day, from year to year, is the story of doing drudge-like research, confirming spelling, facts, and it’s not the stuff of great drama.

Scott Holleran: You write that it was created to offer “terse, telegraphic-style reviews” yet each entry also captures a movie’s essential facts—year of release, cast, director, plot, characters—too. Which does the reader seek more: facts or analysis?

Leonard Maltin: I’ve been told both. People ignore the opinion and focus on facts and I’ve heard the opposite, too.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible to be objective about film?

Leonard Maltin: Oh, no. It’s not objective at all—it’s completely subjective. As I remind people who rant [about a review] it’s just an opinion. Movies matter to me a great deal, but an opinion on a movie is just an opinion. We try very hard [in the Movie Guide] to convey the essence of each movie. There are critics who are much smarter, more articulate and more analytical than me. I think of myself as a kind of middle-brow person and critic. I hope I’m a good communicator.

Scott Holleran: Are there plans to release your out of print books on iBooks?

Leonard Maltin: I’m not at liberty to say [yet] but we’re working on [Amazon’s] Kindle versions of [previously released books by Maltin such as] Selected Short Subjects, The Real Stars and The Great Movie Comedians.

Scott Holleran: Among your peers of movie critics, pundits and scholars of our time—Ebert, Siskel, Pete Hammond, James Lipton, Robert Osborne, Rex Reed, Vincent Canby, Gene Shalit—who is your favorite and why?

Leonard Maltin: I’m a huge admirer of Todd McCarthy who was at Variety for 35 years and is now at the Hollywood Reporter. I think he’s brilliant and incisive. He has a tremendous film knowledge and he’s a great communicator. I also love reading Roger Ebert’s old reviews online because I never got to read him. I’ve really come to appreciate him as a writer. He’s really an essayist. Now I can access his vast library of reviews online.

Scott Holleran: Given the culture’s current trajectory, what sort of movie—if you think that movies will exist—do you think will dominate in the future?

Leonard Maltin: The evidence seems to point to the blockbuster continuing to dominate the world movie scene except at awards time when more intelligent, challenging and daring movies come to the fore which may be the best thing about awards season—to throw a spotlight on movies that need the notoriety that awards hype gives them. People are finding new business models for film all the time and that’s very encouraging. In a year that contains Boyhood and Captain America: The Winter Soldier—one of the best in the comic book series I’ve ever seen—there’s a reason for optimism.

Scott Holleran: Please discuss your approach to reviews. How do you track what happens in the plot—do you take notes during a film? Does your wife Alice assist? Do you call the studio or rely on press notes?

Leonard Maltin: Press notes are always useful but more for background information. But I don’t write lengthy reviews, so I don’t have to worry about outlining and recapitulation and I’ve fallen out of the habit of taking notes [during the film]. My wife Alice and I love watching and discussing film and she’s very perceptive, so she often opens my eyes. But we do disagree.

Scott Holleran: Do you read other reviews before you write your own?

Leonard Maltin: No.

Scott Holleran: Do you subscribe to Netflix?

Leonard Maltin: The household does, though I haven’t really taken advantage of it.

Scott Holleran: Is the press—including the movie press—too close to those in power?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so. I’m more concerned that during awards season here in L.A. both the trades and the L.A. Times have to generate so much copy to just sell the [awards] ads they want to sell.

Scott Holleran: A movie was initially and wrongly blamed by the U.S. government for the Islamic terrorist attack at Benghazi. Do you see any danger of censorship in the near future?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think so.

Scott Holleran: Let’s do a lightning round of your thoughts on movies as we did last time. Snowpiercer with Chris Evans.

Leonard Maltin: I missed it.

Scott Holleran: Jersey Boys.

Leonard Maltin: Pretty good, but I’m not yet convinced that the story is the stuff of great drama.

Scott Holleran: Lovelace.

Leonard Maltin: What an interesting story; I don’t know why the film wasn’t better received.

Scott Holleran: Frozen.

Leonard Maltin: I enjoyed it but didn’t fall in love with it as other people have.

Scott Holleran: Admission with Tina Fey.

Leonard Maltin: Disappointing.

Scott Holleran: Company Men with Ben Affleck.

Leonard Maltin: Good and it got a bum wrap.

Scott Holleran: Dinesh D’Souza’s America.

Leonard Maltin: Didn’t see it. I can’t see every movie.

Scott Holleran: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Leonard Maltin: Great first half, disappointing clichéd finale.

Scott Holleran: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Leonard Maltin: Terrifically well made but didn’t win me over completely.

Scott Holleran: Lincoln.

Leonard Maltin: Excellent.

Scott Holleran: Ida.

Leonard Maltin: Intriguing.

Scott Holleran: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Leonard Maltin: Pleasant. I was hoping for something more.

Scott Holleran: The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Leonard Maltin: A little too bland for my tastes, though people I meet seem to love it.

Scott Holleran: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Leonard Maltin: One of the best comic book superhero movies ever made—proof that such a film can be intelligent and compelling without being pretentious.

Scott Holleran: Amazing Spider-Man.

Leonard Maltin: Pointless.

Scott Holleran: Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Leonard Maltin: Didn’t see it.

Scott Holleran: 12 Years a Slave.

Leonard Maltin: Arresting.

Scott Holleran: Gravity.

Leonard Maltin: Phenomenal in every way.

Scott Holleran: Mud.

Leonard Maltin: My favorite film of 2013. Matthew McConaughey’s best performance, deeply felt by writer and director Jeff Nichols, who I think is one of our brightest young talents.

Scott Holleran: Philomena.

Leonard Maltin: Awfully good.

Scott Hollerann: Dallas Buyers Club.

Leonard Maltin: Terrific.

Scott Holleran: Nebraska.

Leonard Maltin: I liked it even better the second time—because it’s a rich and resonant film.

Scott Holleran: Her.

Leonard Maltin: I loved the first hour. Then, it petered out.

Scott Holleran: Emperor, the movie about Douglas MacArthur in Japan.

Leonard Maltin: Misfire.

Scott Holleran: 42.

Leonard Maltin: Well meaning and it’s an important story to tell. I wish it were a better movie.

Scott Holleran: Prisoners.

Leonard Maltin: Well done but too dark for my taste.

Scott Holleran: Man of Steel.

Leonard Maltin: Frustrating because the first half works so well. If only they’d quit while they were ahead; you lose sight of the characters and it became a slugfest.

Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about actors. Charles Durning?

Leonard Maltin: Great presence.

Scott Holleran: James Garner.

Leonard Maltin: Irresistible.

Scott Holleran: Robin Williams.

Leonard Maltin: Unique and wonderful.

Scott Holleran: Richard Attenborough.

Leonard Maltin: What a fantastic career—on both sides of the camera.

Scott Holleran: Lauren Bacall.

Leonard Maltin: Great with Bogart but really came into her own as a character actress in such movies as Birth, The Mirror Has Two Faces, even Dogville.

Scott Holleran: Doris Day.

Leonard Maltin: Can I say irresistible again? She makes me smile.

Scott Holleran: John Wayne.

Leonard Maltin: One of a kind. Still underrated.

Scott Holleran: Barbara Stanwyck.

Leonard Maltin: Always compelling.

Scott Holleran: Bob Hope.

Leonard Maltin: Underappreciated as a film comedian.

Scott Holleran: Katharine Hepburn.

Leonard Maltin: Indomitable.

Scott Holleran: Thelma Ritter.

Leonard Maltin: She elevates every film she’s in.

Scott Holleran: Eli Wallach.

Leonard Maltin: Versatile and reliable.

Scott Holleran: Mickey Rooney.

Leonard Maltin: One and only—a career like no other and still somewhat unappreciated for his versatility and dramatic skill. I think of him in Drive a Crooked Road (1954) a little film out on DVD, a very minor film noir but he’s so convincing in it—you believe that he really is that car mechanic.

Scott Holleran: Shirley Temple.

Leonard Maltin: Still adorable.

Scott Holleran: In the introduction to your Classic Movie Guide, why do you write that “old movies are better than ever”?

Leonard Maltin: They give me a kind of satisfaction and joy that few contemporary movies do. A great old movie can lift my spirits and make me feel better. What higher achievement can there be for any work of art?

Scott Holleran: What movie are you most looking forward to?

Leonard Maltin: The whole fall lineup looks good—Mr. Turner, Birdman, Foxcatcher.

Scott Holleran: What book would you like to see adapted as a movie?

Leonard Maltin: If I love a book, I don’t want to see the movie. Richard Attenborough learned in trying to adapt A Chorus Line that it was meant to be a theater piece, though there are great exceptions. If I read a book and love it, I don’t want to have that experience recreated or altered in any way. I’m completely satisfied with it.